The Architecture of Denys Lasdun: University Buildings
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The Architecture of Denys Lasdun: University Buildings

Denys Lasdun (1914-2001) was one of the greatest British architects of the post-war period. He designed some of the most notable examples of Brutalist architecture in Britain, including the National Theatre in London. Lasdun's style combined cubic towers, bare concrete and jutting horizontal planes. He developed a language of architecture that was tough, tectonic and highly intellectual. Lasdun designed a number of university buildings throughout his career. In 1959 he created buildings for Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge (1959–63). In contrast to the surrounding historic buildings, Lasdun’s work was strikingly modern. He designed two courts and the Hall Building, a large complex consisting of the college dining hall, kitchens, junior common room and gymnasium.

Denys Lasdun (1914-2001) was one of the greatest British architects of the post-war period.  He designed some of the most notable examples of Brutalist architecture in Britain, including the National Theatre in London.

Lasdun designed a number of university buildings throughout his career.  In 1959 he created buildings for Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge (1959–63).  In contrast to the surrounding historic buildings, Lasdun’s work was strikingly modern.  He designed two courts and the Hall Building, a large complex consisting of the college dining hall, kitchens, junior common room and gymnasium.  A Fellows' Court was completed in 1963 at a cost of approximately £300,000.  This was a residential building for fellows.  Tree Court was the last component of the 1963 construction.  It is located at the north end of the college, opposite Fellows' Court. 

Lasdun also designed a Science Complex at Cambridge (1961), but this project was eventually abandoned.  Lasdun envisaged a cluster of three laboratory towers with lower buildings around the perimeter, connected by bridges.  The towers were designed so that their form would create a silhouette sympathetic to the Cambridge skyline.  The towers echo the Perpendicular Gothic style of the King's College Chapel, albeit in a severe, modernistic way.

A completed design was the New Court  at Christ's College, Cambridge (1966–70).  This was a controversial tiered concrete structure and is nicknamed ‘the Typewriter’.

The Royal College of Physicians in London (1960–64) was designed by Lasdun as an immaculately white modern-classical pavilion and has since been recognised as a building of national importance: it is a Grade I listed building.  Lasdun used a mosaic-clad concrete, which was highly influential on later public buildings.  An interesting feature of the building was a 'Moving Wall' that weighed five tons but could be hydraulically lifted ten feet to unite or sub-divide the hall.  Technical details of the Moving Wall can be found in the Engineering Journal, 1 January 1965. 

In 1961 Lasdun was commissioned to design the Charles Wilson Building for the University of Leicester, initially conceived as a six-storey structure. Additional funding during construction led to the addition of a further four storeys before completion in 1966, resulting in the building's unique shape. Sir Charles Wilson was the University's first Vice Chancellor.

More extensive was his design for the University of East Anglia, which consisted of a series of classrooms and laboratories connected by walkways, and glazed residential quarters shaped like ziggurats. It was built on an industrialised system using large precast concrete elements assembled to a rigid spine that was built in-situ. It was designed to preserve and enhance the landscape: ‘The rough grass "harbour" provides a spatial transition from the open Norfolk landscape to the more intimate spaces of the university itself in which an unbroken continuum of teaching and living spaces forms an architecture of urban landscape rather than a collection of disparate campus buildings.  By their use of materials, the juxtaposition of concrete and grass, the ordering and articulation of architectural elements, they create an ambience which, while drawing little from Classical academic practice, reveals latent Classical qualities – proportion, rhythm, repose.’

His design for the Institute of Education (1970-76), was deeply controversial when built, many saw it as an alien intrusion into a genteel Georgian and early Victorian area.  The building was inserted into the existing street plan of squares and terraces, which it replicated in a Brutalist manner.  The stair cases make references to Wells Coates and Louis Kahn.  Lasdun's masterplanning created a new public square.  It is undeniably a megastructure, but it has a sequence of pure forms, a contrapuntal rhythm of horizontals and verticals and, like all Lasdun buildings, an interplay of solid and void.  Like most of his work, it has the character of a geological outcrop.  The building is now listed Grade II*. 

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Comments (12)

Wow! Cool stuff! I've never seen these before.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, James. The East Anglia building is very impressive. His most famous work is the National Theatre, which is controversial, but I think it's a superb design.

Great structure, great design.

Can you imagine the creativity of the designer? These look like they are engineering marvels. Absolutely beautiful and a well written article to boot.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks for reading everyone.

Very technical write-up. Well done.

well done

Lasdun's architecture are truly unique

Very impressive architectural production. Thanks

Interesting...wonderful photos too. Thanks for sharing.

I like designs like these. Surely, Lasdun's brutalist architecture appeals to the senses.

Outstanding work, Michael.

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